Steven Yeun’s New Frontier
He got famous a decade ago on The Walking Dead. But how well do we really know him? On the occasion of his Oscar-worthy new film, Minari, we go inside the mind of one of Hollywood’s best actors.
Photography by Diana Markosian
March 8, 2021
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“Oh, no,” said Steven Yeun, his register hushed, like he'd just been enlisted to steal the Declaration of Independence.
Some of Yeun's friends had told me, specifically, to ask the actor about his fondness for something called primal astrology. Primal astrology is a quasi-evolved version of its more popular zodiac cousin, with a little more spiritual razzle-dazzle—the main difference being that, instead of, say, Scorpios or Sagittarii, the birth signs are meerkats or bees. According to Primalastrology.com, the system is designed to help people “discover far, far more about your path in life than was previously possible” by combining their Eastern and Western zodiac signs along with “past lives” and “karmic balancing.” (According to a female colleague, “It sounds like astrology, but for dudes.”) Steven Yeun's spirit animal is a camel—an assessment he agrees with.
Steven Yeun covers the April 2021 issue of GQ. To get a copy, subscribe to GQ. Vintage vest and vintage ring (on right hand) from Melet Mercantile. Vintage shirt from Stock Vintage. Vintage jeans by Levi’s from What Goes Around Comes Around. Belt, $985, by Artemas Quibble. Necklace and ring (on left hand), his own. Bracelet, $1,395, by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello.
Per the site, a camel is always “up for an adventure. Like their animal namesake, Camels will not only trek through harsh conditions for you, they will carry you on their back while they do it.… They are highly self-reliant and very lucky, which is why they don't always look before they leap.”
So it's a little bit of a Rorschach test in that the heart sees what it wants to see. Whether it's useful or not, primal astrology is the exact kind of silly distraction that registers in Yeun's bones—that opens his mind to new modes of thinking. Growing up in suburban Michigan, Yeun spent his time absorbed in X-Men trading cards, which spelled out a character's traits, like STRENGTH, ENERGY PROJECTION, FIGHTING ABILITY, and whether this guy's adamantium claws could cut through so-and-so's gamma-irradiated skin. “I wonder if that's an Asian thing?” Yeun said. “We love pattern recognition and stats and knowing what someone's makeup is. You know what I mean?” His favorite thing about primal astrology, though, is “the merging of East and West”—the convergence of worlds. He's deeply focused on those ambiguous, in-between spaces. “That, to me, is maybe the future—if you can balance the ideologies of both sides. That's a good balance.”
These days Yeun finds himself very much in a hazy in-between space of his own, on the precipice, it seems, of something bigger, something special. It's not the first time, either. He became famous, basically overnight, as a beloved character on a popular TV show in which a virus ripped through Earth's population and forced everyone into a gloomy existence in which they wear the same clothes every day. It's like one day there was no Steven Yeun in the culture, and then out of thin air: There's Steven Yeun, the Asian guy from The Walking Dead, skinny-dipping at Wi Spa with Conan O'Brien.
Since his departure from the show five years ago, Yeun, 37, has been in pursuit of that good balance, taking on a series of challenging roles in indie films with some of the more cerebral and gonzo directors of his era, beginning with Okja (by Parasite director and Academy Award winner Bong Joon Ho), then Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley) and Burning (Lee Chang-dong). Last year he starred in Lee Isaac Chung's Minari, which hoovered up the major awards at Sundance and was declared by judge Ethan Hawke to be “damn close to perfect.” By the beginning of 2021, the film—and Yeun's role in it—was being talked about again, as a likely Oscar-nominee for best picture.
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“We profess that we're caught in the white American gaze, and that's true. But we forget that we are also that gaze. That gaze is encoded into us, and the last boss is yourself.”
Set in a sun-dappled version of the '80s, the film features Yeun as Jacob Yi, an obstinate Korean father who uproots his wife and two young children from California to start a farm in rural Arkansas, which might as well be an alien exoplanet thousands of parsecs away. At its heart, Minari is an optimistic film about family and the different frequencies that love can manifest. Unlike other immigrant narratives, it centers the Koreanness of the Yi family while presenting their new white neighbors as an at-times annoying but ultimately benign Other, like the Yis had crash-landed among the Jar Jar Binkses. Race is an ambient specter, but it doesn't cast a shadow over the characters or predetermine what they do; they're allowed to just be who they are, fuckups and all. And no one fucks up more than Jacob, whose existential turmoil gives Yeun the fodder to deliver his most multilayered performance yet. Maybe not surprisingly, the role has ushered him toward a new, rarefied space: a leading man who, through some alchemy of determination, curiosity, charisma, and luck, is expanding in the American imagination the possibilities for Asian American actors and the stories they can tell onscreen. That he happens to be extremely good-looking doesn't hurt, either. Boots Riley told me that in casting Yeun for the role of Squeeze in Sorry to Bother You, he needed someone “handsome enough that you thought that Tessa Thompson was going to want to go after him.”
Of course, in a place as white and retrograde as Hollywood, changing the notions of who gets let in and who gets taken seriously doesn't happen easily. Yeun is particularly thoughtful about this stuff, which has made him something of an ideal ombudsman on the issues of parity and representation, which crop up in sometimes strange ways. Take Minari, for example. It's a critically adored prairie film from a Colorado-born director that takes place in the South. It's as American as Baja Blast and “Dipset Anthem.” Yet instead of honoring the film in the best-picture category, the Golden Globes this year relegated it to best foreign picture, thanks to a byzantine set of rules that, in part, require a best-picture nominee to be “exclusively for English-language motion pictures”—which critics have pointed out didn't seem to apply to, say, Inglourious Basterds. In a way, the Minari controversy forced us to confront the thorny question about who gets to be seen as American—and more crucially who doesn't.
“I wasn't surprised,” Yeun said when I asked him about the Globes. “I have no desire to try to massage both sides in this situation, but it really just comes down to the idea that rules and institutions can never capture real life. And it can never really understand that what builds a place like America and what makes it great is all the people that are contributing to it.” Yeun said he views the Golden Globes slight—annoying as it is—as something of an opportunity: to open new doors, to put others on his back. “If this is the thing that helps to expand these institutions and rules? Cool,” he said. “That's why we make this stuff.”
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Before jumping into Jacob's high-waisted brown trousers in Minari, Yeun faced the burden of portraying Korean fatherhood for a wide audience without falling into old stereotypes. It was eating away at him. “I was more terrified than I'd been doing any other thing,” he said. Here, an opportunity: How do you show audiences a three-dimensional character, full of anger, ambition, and a frightening inability to read his wife's love language? “All these thoughts were racing through my mind, like ‘What do I do?’ ‘Do I play a caricature of our fathers?’ ‘Are people going to want me to play a larger, catchall idea of what a Korean ajusshi is?’ ”
In some ways it's an unenviable task: You're simultaneously resisting old tropes and trying to remain authentic to what you know, all while inventing new molds that someone else can break in the future. You're jumping off a cliff and building the plane on the way down, except the plane has to use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to meet evolving emission standards.
“There's this built-in Voltron image of what an Asian dad is supposed to be, and to break through that is kind of difficult,” he added. “To not just break through the expectations of others, but also to break through the gaze in your own mind.
“We profess that we're caught in the white American gaze, and that's true. But we forget that we are also that gaze. That gaze is encoded into us, and the last boss is yourself.”
Steven Yeun Goes Undercover on Reddit, YouTube and Twitter
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Steven Yeun Goes Undercover on Reddit, YouTube and Twitter
I first met Steven Yeun in New York, where I live, in 2018 on assignment for GQ. Over Scarr's pizza we had an oddly life-affirming conversation about everything from growing up in our respective churches to evolving ideas of masculinity to Jeremy Lin's run with the Knicks. It was…strange! I left in such a daze that I got lost walking back to the office. Part of what made that conversation so comfortable was the fact that we were both Asian guys around the same age. (I'm Filipino.) Still, it's rare to talk to a stranger and find yourself so easily locked onto the same frequency. “It feels cool to talk to you, and dangerous,” Yeun said this time around, laughing. “We can share so much perspective, so I just puke.”
Over a series of long Zoom calls this winter, Yeun was candid and philosophical, the kind of talker whose thoughts balloon into long, floaty paragraphs stippled with the occasional “duuuude.” Earlier in his career, he had flittier, eager-to-please energy, but these days he's mellowed out; his speaking cadence has an almost melatonin effect. If this once-in-a-generation-actor thing doesn't work out, he'd make a great hostage negotiator.
“He thinks about things deeply,” Boots Riley told me when describing his own long conversations with the actor. He cast Yeun in Sorry to Bother You after the two shared a languid night out at a restaurant. Some weed was smoked, and a friendship blossomed from there. “If I'm going to call him on the phone, I have to have a few hours set aside,” Riley added, “because we're going to run the gamut of everything in existence that needs to be talked about.”
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In the two-plus years since I'd last spoken with Yeun, a lot had changed—namely, it's boom times for Asian American film and television. You have rich and tasteless Asians with six-packs on reality TV (Bling Empire). You have hyper-violent Chinatown wars, where the gangsters also have six-packs (Warrior). And you have artful indie films such as Lulu Wang's 2019 feature, The Farewell, for which Awkwafina (six-pack unconfirmed) became the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe for best actress. Not everything being produced right now is “good” necessarily, which is in itself good. That's how this should work. Representation, practically speaking, requires some latitude to suck.
Few people have thought about their place in all of this with as much care and attention as Yeun, even as he acknowledges that when it comes to the topic of authenticity, conversations can quickly become circular. “It's like you get tricked into representing your entire culture, and then the game becomes policing your authenticity to each other,” he said. “But how can you be authentic? What's actually authentic to you is just being this middle person—Korean and American. This third culture.”
Yeun moved to Los Angeles in 2009. Drove across the country and tried out for a handful of acting gigs, including one he didn't get, for a “plucky assistant” on an ill-fated sitcom called Awkward Situations for Men—and then, just five months after crossing the county line, was cast on AMC's The Walking Dead. At its peak, the show was the most watched thing on television, trouncing Game of Thrones and even The Big Bang Theory. His role as Glenn Rhee, a Korean American pizza-delivery guy with great hair and a big heart, quickly transformed Yeun into an object of fan obsession—like, people would literally get his face tattooed on their chests and LARP as him in forums. (In 2017, a year after he left the show, he was filming a night scene for Sorry to Bother You in Oakland, scrunched inside a Toyota Tercel with movie stars including Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson. Yeun was the first one to get recognized…from the back seat. People waiting in line outside a bar were like, “Hey! It's the Asian guy from The Walking Dead!”)
The instant notoriety was surreal—and slightly dehumanizing. Yeun had to stop leading worship at his church after parishioners began asking for selfies. Compounding the chaos was the fact that Glenn was romantically paired up with Maggie, a brave and unswerving white woman, played by Lauren Cohan. “It was important for both of us, but Steven always knew that the relationship had to feel real, because it was one of the first really major Asian-white relationships portrayed on TV,” Cohan told me. The actors did such a laudable job that YouTube is now lousy with fan montages in which Glenn and Maggie are smeared in blood while “All of Me” by John Legend plays in the background.
“America is still not equipped to support the flyness of who we actually are. We're carving out our own space. It's frontier territory right now—still.”
Then, after seven seasons, Glenn's skull was pounded into the dirt by a guy with a baseball bat. Brains everywhere, fingers still twitching. Even by Thrones-ian standards, his death was a lot, and more than a few diehards stopped watching the show afterward. I've always wondered: Could Yeun have kept Glenn alive if he'd wanted to?
“If I would have campaigned for it, maybe?” Yeun said. Still, he had a “nagging feeling” that the ride was done. Glenn was tied to Yeun in such a “meta way,” and he was feeling limited by the character's lack of dimensions. “Like, it's kayfabe, you know what I mean?” Yeun began to explain by way of a wrestling analogy. “I'm like ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan or Ricky ‘the Dragon’ Steamboat or something. Wrestling is for the people: There's ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ But I felt I had expanded beyond that and I was internally frustrated. I felt like I was servicing a concept of goodness, as opposed to engaging with Glenn's humanity.”
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Yeun wanted Glenn to be “more conflicted,” to have the same opportunities for interiority as the other characters. “Glenn has evil thoughts, I'm sure,” said Yeun. “I remember season three, when Glenn thinks that the governor assaulted Maggie, and I remember I campaigned hard. I was like, ‘Yo! Give me a story line where I go to kill this guy.’ ” That didn't happen, and it was the first moment that Yeun knew his time on the series was coming to an end. “To be quite honest, as an Asian person, sometimes accessing your own humanity when you're outside in the world is not that easy. Because you're usually kind of just shrunken down into your label. To not have that in my real life and to not have that in my show life was frustrating. And so I think it just started this journey of just, like…dude, I can't. I've got to feel full. I've got to feel real.”
What do you mean you weren't feeling full in your real life?
“I didn't know it while I was living through it, but you're constantly code-switching,” he said. “You're constantly trying to fit into a situation so that you don't disturb it.” I suspect this is something a lot of Asian Americans of our generation can relate to, career- and otherwise. You feel thankful to be in these rooms, to have a seat at the table, whether you're a creative or a hedge-funder or a beloved actor who marries a cool white woman on a zombie show. Things are going well for you. Why rock the boat?
“But I think I was tired of not letting people know that I could have dark thoughts,” Yeun continued. “That I could also have anger. I would hear all my life from other people who are like, ‘Whoa, are you getting pissed? No way!’ Early on in my life, I took that as a compliment because I was like, ‘Oh, I'm playing the game right. Like, I'm being a nice guy.’ But then you get older and you're like, ‘Fuck that, man. That's an insult.’ And that's what I mean about my humanity. We all feel human. But I just wanted to feel all the feelings.”
So he leapt into roles that allowed for space to feel those feelings. To find answers to the question of who Steven Yeun could become.
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Earlier in his career, Yeun was more of a people pleaser, someone who went out of his way to meet strangers where they were. To a certain extent he still tries to make other people feel comfortable, but as he's gotten older he's become more protective of that accommodating mental energy. He suspects that being hyperaware of what everyone else around you is doing might be another Asian thing. “If you're from a collectivist environment or family, you're constantly thinking about other people,” he said. “You grow to trust that system because at least if you put something into it, it'll come back to you.” He furthered the point with an observation about the workplace: “We get stuck in middle management so much, and I wonder why that is. Probably because we're glue people. We're the ones that keep the companies afloat, because we're managing all this shit, because we're thinking about everything. And then they keep us there because no other person's going to do that.”
The term Asian American is a fairly recent invention, younger than bubble wrap and even the computer mouse. It was coined in the late 1960s by two Berkeley activists who wanted to lasso disparate immigrant groups into a potentially powerful political identity, inspired by the Black Power movement that preceded it. Obviously, the phrase has its limitations: The cultural experience of, say, a Filipino idiot who works at GQ and grew up in a West Coast town like Long Beach surrounded by Cambodians—who on average experience higher poverty rates than other Americans—is going be radically different from that of a Korean immigrant growing up in an overwhelmingly white Michigan suburb. Still, it's a term that captures something useful about a cohort of people who share, if nothing else, a similar sort of middle space—an area in between that we're constantly aware of.
Yeun's family emigrated from Seoul, where his father had been an architect at a big firm, when Steven was four. His parents and younger brother touched down Stateside in Taylor, Michigan—a working-class neighborhood with “gangs, rat tails, and BMX bikes”—living in a green house behind an uncle's store. Mom and Dad's first job in the States was stuffing chopsticks into paper sleeves. “[My dad was like,] ‘When I first came here, I was so angry,’ ” Yeun said. “He said he was so angry because he realized that he threw away all the safety of everything and had to start back up from zero.”
Eventually the family put down roots in the suburb of Troy, a half hour north of Detroit. As a kid, Yeun just sort of osmosed his way into learning English and was often the only Asian kid in school. “I was pretty iso,” he said. “I think immigration, if I'm going to be honest, it fucked me up a little bit.” It was Yeun's younger brother, three years his junior, who had an easier time assimilating—who made friends and got Steven into the NBA and the Detroit Pistons. “He was young enough to not be messed up by the same things,” Yeun said, “and so he kind of blossomed and was able to be a part of life, while I kind of held on to this weird, nebulous middle space.”
So Steven retreated into himself. He found some comfort in Nintendo and X-Men cards, and he befriended “other weird gap-life kids,” the kind predisposed to sitting alone at the lunch table. “I realized I did a lot of things to look smart,” said Yeun. “Secretly, I'm mad dumb!” An example: If someone asked him what his favorite type of music was, he'd blurt out, “Classical!” (“But I don't know anything about classical music. I would just say shit.”) He played in the school orchestra—“first violin, last chair”—but felt like the most realized version of himself at his Korean church, where he didn't have to code-switch. In his youth group, everyone could just move through their little contained world in the fullness of who they were.
Yeun finally began to break out of his shell as a teenager, when he got himself a guitar: a Taylor 710ce with Elixir strings. “I remember the day that my dad bought it for me at Guitar Center,” Yeun recalled. Young Steven was euphoric; Dad was pained by the four-figure price tag. “I think he felt like he was just birthing another child. He was so sad, putting down that money.” The guitar quickly unlocked something in Yeun, who would transform himself into the band leader of his praise group. He had grown to love singing, and the guitar, by extension, made singing easier. He especially loved the worship music of songwriter Chris Tomlin—“Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” was extremely his shit—and would occasionally perform outside the context of the church. The easy John Mayer stuff. Jason Mraz. Those folk-adjacent acoustic tabs that sensitive straight guys of a certain age bracket foolishly thought would help them land girlfriends.
“I did a really good… Whoa, I'm blanking on it. Man, what's that song.…”
And here, after quickly searching the recesses of his memory and failing to come up with the correct answer, Steven Yeun starts to sing:
“Whatever tomorrow brings I'll be there.…”
The song is “Drive,” by Incubus, a fact that I offer a little too quickly.
“Yeah! I did a good cover of that at a church talent show, and I won,” he said, laughing.
After high school, Yeun attended Kalamazoo College, a tiny liberal arts school where he eventually lived in a “disgusting” party house with a few of the basketball players and once lit a couch on fire. It was there he fell into improv comedy, which gave him a new medium with which to express himself. He graduated with degrees in psychology and befriending white people and decided to move to Chicago, following in the footsteps of comedian and fellow Kalamazoo alum Jordan Klepper, whose younger sister had been Yeun's neighbor in the dorms. It wasn't long before Yeun landed a gig performing for The Second City, the improv incubator that launched the careers of Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and generations of other stars. A fun thought exercise is to imagine a parallel universe in which a bizarro Steven Yeun gets butterfly-effected onto the cast of Saturday Night Live.
It was in Chicago that he met Joana Pak, who would become only his second-ever girlfriend and eventually his wife. “I was walking down the street with a friend, and I just see this girl smoking a cigarette under this lamp on Milwaukee Avenue,” Yeun recalled. “I just tapped my friend, and I was like, ‘Yooooooooo, look at that girl.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, shit. I know her!’ ” Such was Steven Yeun's luck. He asked for an introduction and got one, but, unfortunately for him, she had a boyfriend at the time. It wasn't until he ran into her a year later—when she serendipitously walked into the café where he was bartending—that Yeun finally was able to ask her out on a date. “I invited Jo out with two other friends who happened to be girls, which was the worst move of all time,” Yeun said, cringing a little. “Probably because I hadn't been dating in so long, and by that point I was just like, 'You know what? I'm just going to not let her know that I'm into her.' I was playing dumb. Just lame-ass moves.” Fortunately for him, Jo decided to give him a shot anyway. “Then we broke off on our own, and I saw her every day for the rest of the year.”
Faith remains a big part of his life. He fell off during college before finding his way back to it, which strengthened his convictions. “I think faith gets a weird connotation these days, that it's so directly tied with the religious church,” said Yeun. “But faith is just a will to live, right? Just the will to be, and be here, and do the work, and do the thing.” He knows religion is not for everyone, but he says he's “lucky” that it's a part of his life. “That's a gift,” he said. “People search their whole life for something to say and something to really mean.”
Grace surprises him in unlikely moments, like when he was preparing for Minari. “This is an embarrassing admission,” he said. Two days before filming was set to begin, Yeun broke down in the shower. He got in, started running through his lines, and out of nowhere was overcome with emotion. “I started crying,” he said. “It was like all these feelings hit me at the same time, and it was a mixture of fear, awe, gratitude, submission, and joy. And when I thought about it and I put all those feelings together, I was like, ‘Maybe this is faith? Maybe this feeling…is faith?’ ”
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It's not clear to me if his faith and ideas about community inform his own politics, or if it's the other way around. Yeun is a big Bernie guy—supported him over Hillary in 2016—but was one of the first celebrities to come out publicly in support of Andrew Yang's presidential bid, along with Donald Glover and Dave Chappelle. (“My dream ticket was Bernie-Yang,” he said. “I would have been so stoked, dude. I had the merch all in my head.”) When I asked if the Yang campaign reached out to him for his endorsement, Yeun said he actually contacted the campaign first, which started a series of conversations. Yeun said he understands the frustrations with Yang and has plenty himself—particularly with Yang's inartful navigation of identity politics—but ultimately, he saw in the candidate someone who cared deeply about the working class and wanted to further a radical notion of providing people with cash so they could make their own choices. “I was like, that guy's willing to take the hits because he just wants people to get money in their hands, to have safety,” said Yeun. “And it's not about how cool we look or how cool he looks. I'm like, yo, how many selfless people like that do you know? How many people are willing to eat crow on all sides, just to get the thing done?”
To be completely honest, Yeun doesn't know what's next for him after his star turn in Minari, especially with the virus still ambient. Yeun said he “wants to do everything”—which he knows is a vague answer, especially now that he's on the brink of a different stratum of fame. Superhero movies, maybe even going behind the camera—nothing's off the table. “I mean, Steven's going to direct. I don't know if that's completely in the cards, but he really should,” Cohan told me. “He's very emotionally intuitive, and focused, and forward moving.” Yeun said he's been getting scripts to consider, but he doesn't “really gravitate towards the things that feel obvious” and is resistant to roles that box him in. (“I'm sure I'm super annoying to represent,” he added.)
But because this is Steven Yeun, he sees the other side of the conundrum too: “You know what's tough, man? I can see why people that are on the outside of us get confused.” He proceeded to lay out a slightly disorienting metaphor: You say you don't want to play the kung fu guy, but then a few months later, maybe you do want to be the kung fu guy because, oh wow, some of these new kung fu roles they're writing are actually pretty sick. “And that's really the core condition that I think we're always at tension with, which is when we're always stuck in this white gaze, there's also this expectation to service it.… America is still not equipped to support the flyness of who we actually are,” he added. “We're carving out our own space. It's frontier territory right now—still.”
That all this success is happening against the backdrop of the pandemic has been its own journey. A conversation we shared one Friday night in February sticks with me. Things had already been on the heavy side, and we both were opening up about everything: how hard this past year has been, the friends and family we've lost to COVID, the health scares our loved ones are enduring. I noted how weird it must be to have the most critically acclaimed year of your career coincide with, well…all of this. “Life is mad real right now,” he said, and his words just sort of lingered there as he stared off to the side. He didn't want to sound ungrateful, but he was trying to keep perspective. “We had a couple of COVID deaths in our families, and I mean…everyone's been touched by that. And I'm not saying who gives a shit about these [awards], like, anybody would want them.…” He said he's been trying to lean into the gratitude, to be accepting of the honorifics as they come. But it's been tough, especially with everything else going on in the world.
The weekend after that call, a series of graphic videos begin to make the rounds online in which elderly Asians are ambushed on the streets—attacks that seemed to be happening with more frequency, metastasizing from coast to coast, as if Asians are to blame for the ongoing virus. The footage is brutal, paralyzing—a swift punch to the gut. But the news, for whatever reason, is slow to break out beyond Asian American circles. I text my parents and ask them not to go on their walks without my younger brother present.
Yeun sent a text that Monday to ask how I was doing—how I was feeling about the attacks. I tell him that while I was heartened by how the community was organizing to protect its elders, it's odd that the news hadn't yet reached the mainstream media, especially considering how visceral the videos were. It felt as if everyone I knew was shouting into the void again, the suffering rendered invisible.
“I think it's also something to realize,” he replied. “That we can't really count on others to step in for us. A lot of the discussion asks why others don't always see us, and I wonder if the prescription for the time being is to start seeing ourselves. We need to reach back and help our own communities.” Fundraising for the victims, for example, is “something we can galvanize ourselves around.” Yeun was worried about sounding too prescriptive here, but he's interested in finding actionable solutions that help break the cycle of Asian Americans talking about the same issues—representation, emasculation, etc.—over and over again into perpetuity. (I floated a slightly cynical and 15-percent-joking take: that perhaps we were expecting too much when it was only last summer that white people finally got comfortable saying Black Lives Matter, and it's like, wait a minute, now we gotta care about Asians too?)
I wondered if, on some level, he thought that the inability to break through was due to a dearth of leadership. Perhaps this was a downside of a collectivist approach. “I don't think that's a wrong thought,” he replied. “But I think maybe it's more to do with the form that that leadership takes. I think the leadership needs to be pretty balanced, and that's hard. It has to be confident in itself. In Korean, the word for ‘confidence’ is jashin-gam. And jashin means ‘self.’ And gam means ‘sense.’ I think we don't know ourselves, but we are starting to.
“It can really only come from accepting who we are,” he added. “And I think most of us spent a lifetime running away from that.”
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One evening outside Tulsa, as the sun was retreating into the horizon, the Minari crew was wrapping up another long day of filming. Some of the camera crew were shooting B-roll, cows grazing against a chemical-washed sky, when an assistant nudged director Chung. Hey, look at Steve.
“Steven just had like the most grueling day ever on set, and his shirt is untucked and he comes out and he starts smoking a cigarette,” Chung recalls. “And I look over and Steven just looks so worn down, he's just contemplating and looking at the sunset.” Without saying anything, the crew decided to quietly start filming Yeun from behind some tall grass; he was squatting as he gazed off into the distance. The shot was so perfect, so elegant in its quietude, that they were able to cut the next scene from the script altogether. A small moment of good fortune.
“Later I asked Steven, ‘So what were you doing in that scene when we were filming you?’ ” recounts Chung. “And he said, ‘I was praying.’ ”
A few days later, I asked Yeun if he remembered what he was praying about.
“I think I was just…in it,” he said. “I was just there. There's this—It's so corny, but I have it right here.…” Yeun rummaged through his things and unearthed a faded old poetry book called The Farm, by Wendell Berry. He found it at a used-book store in Tulsa while filming Minari, “on a bored weekend, just sifting through stuff,” and the literalness of the title as it related to his life caught his eye.
“And then I found this passage,” he said, flipping through the pages. “And it says… Where is it? This is wild.…”
And here, Steven Yeun began to read his favorite part of the poem:
“And so you make the farm, and so you disappear into your days, your days into the ground. Before you start each day, the place is as it is, and at the day's end, it is as it is, a little changed by work, but still itself, having included you and everything you've done. And it is who you are, and you are what it is. You will work many days no one will ever see; their record is the place. This way you come to know that something moves in time that time does not contain. For by this timely work you keep yourself alive as you came into time, and as you'll leave: God's dust, God's breath, a little Light.”
Yeun explained that while he was staring off into the sunset, he once again found himself in that liminal headspace, trying to snap back to reality while letting go of Jacob, who at that point was “truly wrestling with God, trying to extricate himself from God, just being like, ‘I am my own man.’ ” He was giving so much of himself to the role, submitting to it, and in return the work was subtly rearranging his molecules and changing, little by little, who Steven Yeun was.
“I hope we can all see that we don't exist without the other person,” he told me once, optimistically. “Even if you don't know that person, that person validates your existence. They uphold your existence with their existence. And hopefully in understanding that, we'll be kinder to each other and appreciate each other more.” In spending all this time with him for this story, I feel myself a little changed, too, with a small but abiding desire to use my time to be more generous, more open, more protective of the things that matter, more willing to choose gratitude when other, more seductive options might be readily accessible. “I'm here now and I don't know how I got here,” he added. “In my head, it just feels like sheer luck. Hard work is in there, but mostly, it's just fucking luck.”
He's working many days that no one will ever see; his record is the place.
Chris Gayomali is a GQ articles editor
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue with the title "Steven Yeun's New Frontier."
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PRODUCTION CREDITS:Photographs by Diana MarkosianStyled by George CortinaHair by Anh Co Tran at The Wall GroupGrooming by Hee Soo Kwon using Dior Backstage Face & Body FoundationTailoring by Susie KourinianSet design by Heath Mattioli for Frank RepsProduced by GE Projects